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Iran Parliamentary Elections and Beyond

Given the complex nature of politics in Iran, the recent elections hold far-reaching impact on domestic as well as foreign policy front. Since the Presidential elections in 2009, President Ahmedinejad has been faced with intense criticism by clerics and other conservative leaders for intending to expand the power of the presidency, on charges of increasing corruption in his government, disrespect towards human rights and above all promoting a ‘moderate’ version of Islam which is strictly prohibited as per the principles of the Guardian Council.

The politics in the Middle East has always been the focus of international attention. The region, according to some political geographers is an area of ‘chronic instability’. Besides the longstanding Arab-Israel conflict and more recent ‘Arab Spring’ in many states of the region, Iran remains to be in spotlight for several reasons, including domestic political instability, hard-line stance towards the West, posing a challenge to the interests of extra-regional stakeholders in the region and above all facing sanctions by the United Nations on its nuclear programme.

Of late, the parliamentary elections in Iran in March this year once again drew attention of states, analysts and media across the globe. Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, theocracy is what defines the politics of Iran which is run under the supreme leadership of Ayatollah Seyed Ali Hosseini Khamenei. The elections were held for the ninth Islamic Consultative Assembly or Majlis since the Islamic Revolution. The first round of elections is said to have been a contest between the supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad which has resulted in a clear victory for the supporters of Ayatollah Khamenei posing several challenges to the President Ahmedinejad till his second term as President of Iran ends in 2013.

Given the complex nature of politics in Iran, the recent elections hold far-reaching impact on domestic as well as foreign policy front.  Since the Presidential elections in 2009, President Ahmedinejad has been faced with intense criticism by clerics and other conservative leaders for intending to expand the power of the presidency, on charges of increasing corruption in his government, disrespect towards human rights and above all promoting a ‘moderate’ version of Islam which is strictly prohibited as per the principles of the Guardian Council. When, in 2005, Mahmoud Ahmedinejad was elected as the President he was fully backed by the Supreme Leader and even following his controversial victory in the presidential elections in 2009, Ahmedinejad was patronized by the Supreme Leader. However, deviation from some crucial policy principles by Ahmedinejad led to a rift in his relationship with Ali Khamenei. The Conservatives, who were united till last year, now are divided after President Ahmedinejad dared challenge the Supreme Leader over the choice of intelligence chief in April last year.

Following the defeat of the country’s only former prime minister and a close ally of former president Mohammad Khatami, Mir-Hussein Mousavi, in the presidential race against Ahmedinejad, the reformists led a ‘Green Movement’ in support of Mir-Mousavi and calling for freedom of expression and transparent democracy. The movement was repressed brutally and the government launched a crackdown on protestors, many of whom were arrested, faced trial and later hanged. The violent suppression of the movement largely ended the protests.
The country has been under a semi-crisis situation since the 2009 elections which were not only criticized and labeled as ‘rigged’ but also led to a series of protests and demonstrations against President Ahmedi-nejad. Following the defeat of the country’s only former prime minister and a close ally of former president Mohammad Khatami, Mir-Hussein Mousavi, in the presidential race against Ahmedinejad, the reformists led a ‘Green Movement’ in support of Mir-Mousavi and calling for freedom of expression and transparent democracy. The movement was repressed brutally and the government launched a crackdown on protestors, many of whom were arrested, faced trial and later hanged. The violent suppression of the movement largely ended the protests.

Now, the defeat of several candidates affiliated with Ahmedinejad in the recent elections is a rebuke to the President by the Supreme Leader. In the absence of the reformists who had boycotted the elections, the contest between the two groups of conservatives was not of ideology but for political power and control of state’s resources. The Supreme Leader seeks to abolish the office of the president as it stands in contrast to his position according to the Iranian constitution. Hence, the results of elections are likely to reshape the domestic political landscape of the country and also impact upon its foreign policy. Once sidelined, Ahmedinejad would have less or no influence over the choice of his successor. The loyalists to Ali Khamenei comprise of traditional, moderate and radical conservatives. The traditional conservatives have deep roots in the clerical establishment. On the other hand, moderate conservative factions are mainly war-veteran technocrats, while radical conservatives generally include individuals with roots in the security-intelligence apparatus who depend on the support of revolutionary institutions such as Revolutionary Guards. Many important positions are likely to be occupied by the candidates affiliated with the Supreme Leader which may further aggravate the discontentment among public, especially the reformists. This political bedlam would be detrimental to the economy already battered by international economic and financial sanctions and the society faced with repression of human rights and in dire need of reforms, especially democracy.

With regards to Iranian nuclear programme, though Ali Khamenei maintained a hard-line stance towards the West, the country is likely to come under strict international sanctions. As stringent measures against Tehran remains to be a priority of the United States, the elections were an effort by the leaders to present to the world the legitimacy of the government in Iran in the wake of growing discontentment among public and increasing international pressure and sanctions on Iran’s continued nuclear programme. On the other hand, Iran’s close relationship with Russia and China is also threatened. Since 1991, Iran enjoyed strategic relationship with Russia. Moscow has been a major arms supplier to Tehran. In addition, Russia supplied short and long-range anti-aircraft missiles and shipped tons of low-enriched uranium reactor fuel to the Russian-built nuclear power plant in Iran. Previously, Moscow has maintained that there are no proofs of Tehran intending to develop nuclear weapons. However, the country has voted in favour of the United Nations sanctions on Iran.

Similarly, Iran had good diplomatic, economic and military relationship with China. “In 2009, China became Iran’s most significant trading partner with exchanges worth 21.2 billion dollars. Beijing is also said to have supplied dual-use chemical and dual-use metal to Tehran which Iran could use to develop weapons, including long-range missiles. China is also a significant source of Iranian gasoline imports and even expanded gasoline imports to the country”. Like Russia, China has also supported Iran’s right to peaceful nuclear technology. Beijing maintained its stance towards resolution of Iran’s nuclear issue through negotiations and peaceful means. Though the country now has voted in favour of UN sanctions on Tehran, it maintained to continue economic ties with Iran. In view of its relationship with Russia and China and strategic significance in the region, Iran was granted Observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a grouping led by Russia and China. The policy shift towards Iran by Russia is mainly due to its changing spheres of interest in the Middle East and beyond. The strategic relationship between Russia and Israel is growing. Also, of late, Russia is more concerned of its interests and influence in East Europe and Central Asia, including Ukraine, Georgia and some other former Soviet republics.

The next round of elections would be decisive in terms of the future course politics in Iran. The revolutionaries who once had successfully abolished the autocratic rule of Shah in 1979 are now challenged by the groups uniting to bring change in the country. Iranians from all walks of life want stability inside and on their borders and a government that would introduce and deliver on the basis of reforms. ‘With 30 percent inflation, a 35 percent increase in food prices, a 50 billion dollar deficit, and an unemployment rate of 16 percent, Iran’s rulers will have a hard time convincing the population that they would have a respectful, prosperous and secure future.

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